Sunday, April 26, 2009

Visual Literacy and Material Noise

I like words. I like them very very much, yes I do. And because I like words so much, I think that pleasure may blind me to other forms of language. So I'm going to explore some ideas here (in words) that I don't know if I believe yet, but are on my mind.

There are lots of forms of language. Some are languages that are sounds and symbols organized by rules, such as written and spoken English. There's also non-verbal communication or "body language," a knowable system of postures and facial expressions that convey emotional states of interest or boredom or attraction or defense.

Mathematics is also a language, consisting (like English) of a body of symbols and a set of rules that establish relationships between those symbols. Computer code is widely thought of in terms of "languages" such as C++ and SQL, which are again systems of symbols and relationships.

Music can be reasonably thought of as a language: a system of symbols and relationships. But now we get into some interesting areas. One of the core tenets of postmodern philosophy is that the question of "meaning" is no longer tenable; that as our cultures have become more complex and intermingled (and ironic), there is no longer a meaningful connection between what I write and what you read, between what you say and what I hear. And that gets expressed in a couple of different ways: taste and comprehension. Taste is subcultural – I belong to a group of people who does or does not like Tom Waits, Beyonce, or James Taylor. Those sounds are reassuring to me, help me feel like a certain kind of person (ironic hipster, fashionable clubster, or mellow Yuppie sophisticate, respectively).

But understanding is also subcultural. The vast majority of Americans would not recognize the music of Gavin Bryers or Napalm Death or Nas as music at all. The common parental epithet "Turn down that goddamn noise!" is only partially intended as an insult. "Noise" means, literally, acoustic signals that do not convey information; in language term, symbols with no system of relationships. So when parents listen to the music of their children, they may often be faced with a bewildering array of sounds and no meaningful way to put those sounds together into rules. The writers and performers of that music have meaning in mind – they are conveying something. But if I don't understand the rules, I don't get that meaning, just as I miss almost everything going on around me when I visit a Chinese neighborhood.

Which brings me, in a very sideways fashion, to architecture. Last week, some colleagues and I were discussing the criteria we wanted our students to be able to achieve after they'd gone through some part of our program. And one of the criteria was that they were able to find relevant ideas, analyze them, and use them to create an argument about something that mattered to them. One of my colleagues said that he wished we could create criteria that would more fully express the fact that we were a design school, that wasn't so much about language. Others immediately responded that design should be an argument, that one is making a material stance toward the world. And I completely buy that. But the question I raised, and the one that we collectively haven't resolved yet, is whether the ideas and the analysis and the argument can be conducted wholly through the medium of a visual language, or whether at some points we have to use words and sentences to convey the ideas that created the visual outcomes. In other words, if you're deeply fluent in architecture, can you read someone's thought processes through their drawn and modeled and constructed work, without any words attached? I honestly don't know the answer to that; it may be possible that there are readable ideas throughout the work of the more esoteric architects. I do know that, if there are, they are as unapproachable to me as the conversations of the Vietnamese merchants of downtown Oakland.

So I know that I approach the world of architecture as a limited speaker of visual language, a kind of VSL student. I'll claim that as a weakness. And yet, I'll also put forth that I'm likely more visually literate than most Americans, after years of architectural education and architectural scholarship. So if we're teaching our students a specific idiom of architectural language, are we doing them (or our society) a service by teaching them one that's so thoroughly incomprehensible to most civilians? I can choose to attend or not attend a Napalm Death show; I get no such choice to work in or near a Holl or Piano building, which is just as likely to be understood as "noise:" symbols with no comprehensible rules for relationships.

1 comment:

Adam Mitchell said...

I think that perhaps the work of Holl and other contemporary architects use some sort of language. Even if it is indiscernible to some it is still a building. I do think your analysis is very humorous...napalm death. I personally feel like that when I am viewing some buildings that blatantly murder cultural identity. (no examples necessary for the BAC) I say..how dare they!